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Social Media and the Law – Or, ‘What Not to Say Online’

Today, Tom looks at what you can, and can not say, on social media:

 

Imogen Thomas' football lover was hot gossip on Twitter in 2011If you’ve read Paul’s recent blog post concerning Chris Brown’s Twitter PR disaster and subsequent departure from the platform, you’ll be aware that what you say online can have a real impact on your reputation. That might sound obvious – after all, much of the time, anything you put your name to online is in the public domain, for better or for worse. Much to the chagrin of those who treat social media sites as forums for political debate (or, in some cases, pure mudslinging), anything you write in a public place online is treated as being ‘published’ in the same way that a newspaper article or book is published, bringing millions under the weighty gavel of defamation law. But this simple truth can distract us from the fact that the line between public and private in the online world is becoming increasingly blurred.

Is a Facebook Status Private?

What if, for example, you post a defamatory status update on Facebook; one that is only viewable by your friends? Is this to be classified as public, and thus subject to the full force of the law? Or is it more similar to the oft-referenced ‘conversation in a pub’? What if your privacy settings mean that your friends’ friends can also see the message? For the moment, it would appear that the law is falling on the side of free speech – see the case of Adrian Smith, who expressed a belief that gay marriage is ‘an equality too far’ and who won his case against an employer that penalised him for saying so. It seems obvious that this is not a problem which will go away, and that advocates of free speech will have a difficult fight ahead as test cases are fought in the courts.

Libel in 140 Characters or FewerTwitter and the Law

Twitter seems much more black and white. Though the average user might not think of it as such – after all, people are always braver behind a keyboard than in person – it is a completely public platform which warrants care. However, because of the fact that so many users ignore its public nature, the law faces yet more test cases. If 10,000 English users retweet a defamatory phrase, are they all liable? Practically speaking, how would a claimant gather the details of so many users in order to sue them? Could Twitter itself be held responsible for a failure to censor offending tweets, and if so, is there a certain number of retweets beyond which it is safe to assume that the site knows something is going on?

Steer Clear of Trouble with Social Media Advice

The law almost always lags behind evolving cultural trends, and the increasing usage of social media is no exception to this rule. Libel law is just one more reason why it’s essential to have a solid social web strategy. Users of these platforms would be wise to watch their words, and social media management professionals should be careful not to get their clients into hot water.

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